Identifying one’s company’s values and blowing trumpets about them could seem fancy and fashionable. But it is never enough. Serious companies are those who not only identify a clear set of values but who also adhere to them and profess their people’s collective commitment, says Mark Aquilina, NOUV’s founding partner and Chief Visionary Officer.

Someone I know, recently asked me what values mean to me and what place they hold in my vocabulary. Without hesitation, I replied with a short word, “Respect”.

However, that one discernible word, in effect, has a different meaning for everyone. Moreover, it opens a pandora’s box of endless discussions, theories, and philosophies, especially in the context of a business leader. Respecting all the stakeholders was not the case in two big corporate scandals in recent years, Enron and Carillion.

Enron’s professed values were ‘Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence.’ whereas Carillion’s were ‘we care, we achieve together, we deliver, and we improve.’

Yeah right!

It was tragic enough that these two giant companies went against the values they professed to uphold. But I found it more tragic that their demise saw over two hundred thousand people losing their jobs, pension, and business.

I am often tempted to think that companies rapidly string a few values together to create a nice-sounding tagline that they can flaunt whenever they need to look good. But then, they are less quick to stick to their promises to uphold those values.

Whilst it may be true that values can define a company’s identity, I have concluded that nowadays, it is not the values chosen that set one’s organisation apart from its competition but the extent to which organisations and their people live by those values they commit to in their daily operations.

Values bring pain

If you, as a company leader, are not willing to accept the pain that is sometimes incurred when choosing between doing what is right and doing what one wants to do, then do not bother going through any trouble with formulating values or mission statements.

I often ask myself, who do I want to be? And how do I want my company and employees to behave? Whether we know it or not, we answer these questions daily through our actions.

And the answer is simple: how you show up and treat others is everything. I learned that life and business are all about fostering healthy and positive relationships. Hence, ask yourself, ‘do I enjoy lifting people’s spirits, making them feel valued or small? Am I civil in my approach or disrespectful or rude? Am I positive, enthusiastic, and appreciative? Do I care for others or is it all about me, my success, and my benefit? Am I someone who sucks the energy out of everybody or vice versa? How is my work ethic?’

These are all questions one needs to ask, and the answers are within us. Gaining the respect of people is not a popularity contest but something earned with sweat and blood.

Experience showed me that being true to one’s professed values can also bring pain because leading a company is a journey. Just as with any journey, people will always stray away from the values that bind them to the company they form part of.

‘Leading a company is a journey and just as with any journey, people will always stray away from the values that bind them to their company.’‘Leading a company is a journey and just as with any journey, people will always stray away from the values that bind them to their company.’

Whenever this happened, I was reminded of some wise words I was once told - that a business built on values can never be a democracy and that remaining true to specific values requires conviction and demands guts.

Setting a company’s values has nothing to do with consensus. Consensus is reached when people compromise, but there can never be a compromise with specific values. There can be a set of fundamental, strategically-sound beliefs offered to a broad group of people who form the organisation. From then onwards, it is up to them to either accept these values and make them their own by slowly adapting to them or to move on.

As American author Simon Sinek points out, “values should be how companies operate when they’re at their natural best - rather than trying to be inspirational.”

Values put in practice

I recently came across some exciting research on company values, how employers perceive such values and how employees receive these. This research showed that in the UK, 27 per cent of employees perceive their company’s vision and values as too corporate-sounding, 18 per cent feel that the values do not reflect their organisation, 49 per cent do not even know their organisation’s values and 39 per cent wished they had more involvement in contributing to their company’s values and vision.

Taking a cue from this last point, at NOUV, we recently ran a small internal values survey where all our employees had the opportunity to suggest which, in their opinion, are the values that best define who we are as an organisation, how we operate, what we stand for and how we want others to see us.

The survey contained a list of over sixty values from which employees had to select and adapt five values that best represent our firm. Values chosen ranged from Teamwork, Vision, Adaptability, Ambition and Quality to Transparency, Passion, Growth, Hardworking and Challenge.

These values were then combined and re-aligned to the ideal representation of NOUV – Visionary, Adaptable, Limitless, Unified and Enthusiastic.

This exercise was an important internal one because, whilst keeping us aligned with our business purpose, it kept everyone aligned towards the same goals. It will also help us attract like-minded new people to our organisation.

Whilst every profession should genuinely seek to leave a positive impact on people’s lives, values must be emphasised, upheld, and modelled first and foremost by any company’s senior management.

Leading by example must be the top priority. It is what guarantees good governance and positive social impact. In the end, it will be the embraced values that will bind people together and make organisations stronger.

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